Twenty-two athletes, two goals, and one ball. In England, commentators refer to it as, “A Funny Old Game,” though for many that statement is far from sound. The game is football, futebol, or in America, soccer. While Americans fervently follow gridiron, basketball, and baseball, none of these games have changed international history or altered how society functions like soccer has. Therefore, its influence on modern history must not be undermined.
Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader of Italy from 1925-1943, used the second World Cup as a platform to secure power. His fellow totalitarian General Francisco Franco, of Spain, saw soccer as a way to bolster control of his Fascist state. More recently, Saddam Hussein and the beautiful game proved to be detrimental to the nation’s prosperity. Since the surge of football’s popularity in the early to mid 1900s, extending through the present day, the beautiful game was integral to the success of dictatorships, including those of Benito Mussolini, General Francisco Franco and Saddam Hussein, as they utilized the sport, as a political catalyst to control society, gain prestige, and portray a positive image to the world.
In 1863, a group of Englishmen prescribed the first official rules for the game of football, thus establishing the Football Association. Originally a rugby-like sport in which players dribbled the ball down the field without thought, the game developed into a sophisticated yet simple fixture. Over the next 70 years, the British spread soccer to the ends of the earth, though the best football was played in Argentina and Uruguay. The two nations fought for international supremacy throughout the 1920s and settled the score at the first World Cup in 1930. Uruguay played hosts and defeated the Argentines in the final to claim victory, but neither nation competed four years on. The Great Depression of the early 1930s crippled the economies of each nation, making it financially impossible for players to travel to the host nation.
Cue Benito Mussolini: The man who believed that Italy needed one man, more intelligent than commoners, to turn the country into a world superpower. Mussolini took control on October 8, 1922. The new dictator used his Blackshirts to impose authority, as the brutal police force could keep people in check. However, Mussolini knew that the Italians could not be silenced forever, thus he found an activity that they all enjoyed. To exploit the minds of his people, he used soccer as propaganda. Known as calcio, “The Leader” lifted moral and brought a “feel good factor” to those under his reign, including himself.
Mussolini used the terraces and his nation’s youth to install his power. Il Duce saw the stadium as a cathedral. It was the one place where people united to drive on one cause. Therefore, Mussolini began to build an arena in 1926, as the Littoriale was erected in Bologna. The city’s team incurred success, leading to the construction of the Giovanni Berta in Florence. In addition, Mussolini strived to bring back the glory days of the ancient republic‘s muscular athletes. Thus he created the Fascist Youth, a program strongly based around the principles of discipline and organization. Uber Gradella played for Lazio, a football club in Rome, from 1939-1948, as a goalkeeper. In the BBC documentary Football and Fascism, the Italian said that he was, “indoctrinated and brainwashed,” along with other Youth members, for whom only soccer remained.
With his soccer theatres and influence in place, Il Duce was honored with the privilege of hosting the second FIFA World Cup. Italy 1934 was a concrete opportunity for his rule to gain popularity on a massive scale. A former newspaper editor, Il Duce was able to harness the power of media with exceptional grace. His press secretary equivalent, Lando Ferretti, created the Order of Journalists to control the information distributed to the Italian people. In fact, the writers themselves were better known than Mussolini’s prized eleven. The papers gave the people much pride, as only positive news was comprehended by them, thus they felt they were part of an immaculate and superior society. Mussolini furthered this overweening attitude, saying, “With the Deuce one is never lost; neither will we lose today,” before England drew 1-1 with Italy in 1933. Tying media and sport into politics, the perfect storm for Mussolini to get the willful backing of the Italian state was conjured.
The people’s game, a simple recreational activity was brought to its fascist zenith at Italy 1934. The host’s XI were among the best in the world. They breezed through the group stage, demolishing the U.S. 7-1 in the process. However, the Italian side was less convincing, as the competition progressed. Mussolini was there to cover for his lacking team to ensure they would win the “Copa Il Deuce.” The dictator handpicked each referee for Italy’s matches, which became evident in their quarterfinal match with Spain. Reports state the match’s officials were fired upon arrival for their poor performance. In the semi-final, Italy slated to take on the Wunderteam. Led by Hugo Michel, the Austrian side is considered one of the best ever to play the game. Mussolini had no fear of defeat after having the young Swedish referee, Ivan Eklund, over for dinner on the eve of the match. The two are said to have spoken about “tactics.” Josef Bican of Austria told the BBC, “Michel knew the games were rigged,” as did the rest of the team. Eklund clearly favored Italy. Bican noted that he played a ball down the right flank, which the official headed out of Italian territory. With the official on their side, the Italian’s win at all-costs strategy proved effective. Video from the match shows Austrians blatantly fouled, while play was allowed to continue. Similar to the football teams immaculate behavior, the Italians began to believe that the regime could do no wrong.
In the final, a young Czechoslovakian team having paraded to the competition’s climax, were primed to take “Copa Il Deuce” out of Italy. To ensure victory, Ivan Eklund was invited by Il Deuce for another “tactical talk,” in addition to a VIP box meeting hours before kick-off. Italy won the match easily; thus Mussolini had pulled off the perfect propaganda stunt. As a result, the world saw Italy as a unified nation full of joy after their emphatic victory. People celebrated the triumph in the streets, though unknowingly supporting the dictator and his fascist regime. These citizens were stuck in a bubble, in which they worshipped a media mogul. What made the scheme so brilliant was its “truth.” There was no air of uncertainty around football, as the masses saw who beat whom. The dictator’s regimented and technically brilliant side progressed to win the 1936 Olympic competition followed by the 1938 World Cup. To say Mussolini’s World Cup was a turning point in the regime’s success would be a great understatement, as the victory brought pride to Italians, thus the team’s success through the leader brought them unbridled love for their country, allowing Mussolini to rule until 1943.
Il Duce did not limit his fascist ideals to Italy, as he supported General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which spanned from 1936-1939. The general defeated a weak Communist Party, and in essence was Spain’s leader before his official victory. Football’s governing body recognized the RFEF (Spanish FA) of Franco in 1937, two years before the world credited him with leading the massive Iberian nation. (FIFA recognizes Palestine as a country. Is this a sign of things to come?)
Franco’s nationalized sport according with the actions of other dictators. Santiago Bernabeu, a member of Real Madrid C.F. from his teenage days until his death, supported Franco‘s fascism. The rebel returned from France to aid Franco in battle. Being the disciplined individual he was, the rebel said, “The spectacle of a few sweaty youth must disappear and give way to a youth that is healthy in body and spirit.” The Spanish dictator followed this path by creating the DND (Delegacion Nacional de Deportes de Falange Espanola Tradicionalista y de la JONS), a state run organization centralizing sport, which recommended that before each match, revolutionary chants of the war, such as, “Arriba Espana!” and “Viva Franco!” be echoed throughout the terraces. To further his ego and supremacy Franco renamed “Copa del Rey” (Spain’s domestic football tournament) to “Copa del Generalisimo,” coinciding with Mussolini’s self-centeredness, which saw him put his nickname on the World Cup trophy. To further his domination of Spanish football, the famous red shirts were scrapped, in favor of a fascist blue strip, thus showing off Spain to the world as a united right-wing nation.
Upon Franco’s eccentric victory in Madrid, he made the city his own. When he arrived, one his first actions was to replace the entire board of Real Madrid with fascist allies. Despite a stadium in shambles, Franco saw the club through toward European supremacy. The Catalan were hardly on board with Franco’s policy. Barcelona’s regional contingents were last to be conquered in the civil war. Their liberal attitude took to the pitch, as a free-flowing F.C. Barcelona XI were one of the most feared sides in all of Spain. Much to their distaste, Franco made the club’s stadium, Les Corts, “Fascist,” to deplete all Catalan pride. When the 1943 “Copa” reached the semi-final stage, Barcelona was drawn against Real Madrid, presenting the perfect chance for Franco to put the Catalan to bed. In the first leg Barcelona drubbed Real 3-0 in the east. The regime’s control of the media showed in the morning papers, as Madrid journalist Eduardo Teus wrote that the Barcelona, “crowd had shown dishonor and disrespect to the nation,” at Les Corts.
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